Desmond Meade, the man who led the movement to restore voting rights to more than 1 million former felons, supports a law that is now being challenged as an unconstitutional barrier to voting, according to testimony presented in a federal trial on Friday.
A coalition of civil rights groups are challenging the 2019 law that implements a state constitutional measure, known as Amendment 4, that was designed to restore voting rights to felons who have completed the terms of their sentences.
Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, led the successful Amendment 4 drive, which was endorsed by 65 percent of Florida voters in 2018.
Nearly two decades ago, Meade, an Orlando resident, served a three-year prison term for possessing a gun as a felon. He later went on to earn a law degree and become a leading advocate for former prisoners, including regaining their right to vote.
Meade and his group have estimated that Amendment 4 has the potential to restore voting rights in Florida to some 1.4 million “returning citizens,” as the advocates call the former felons.
But at issue now is the 2019 law that civil rights groups are challenging in federal court as an unconstitutional “wealth test,” since it requires the former felons who have served their prison time or probation to also pay all their court-related fees, including fines and restitution payments, before they can vote.
Lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who are defending the law, presented a recording of Meade’s deposition in the case on Friday, where he testified that he supported the measure when it passed in the 2019 legislative session.
“Was this the most ideal legislation? No, it wasn’t,” Meade said in deposition. “But it was legislation that we felt we could live with.”
Meade said his organization did not “fully embrace” the measure and that it could be improved. “But we were fully prepared to live with it, and we were fully prepared to operate under the color of law,” he said.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has taken a “neutral” position in the litigation and in a brief it filed, the group said it supported the law because it allows judges to modify a felon’s sentence in order to gain voting rights. For instance, instead of having to pay all the court fees and fines that can amount to thousands of dollars, the law allows judges to commute those charges to community service.
Asked why his organization did not join the groups challenging the law, Meade said it was in line with his original philosophy in advancing Amendment 4 as a “non-partisan” issue that would attract support across the political spectrum.
“We really wanted to keep this thing elevated above partisan politics and the things that divide our country. And I think we were able to successfully do that in passing Amendment 4,” Meade said.
He said his efforts to help the former felons has always been a “movement about people.”
“We cut through all the bs. We cut through all the partisan back and forth and all that. At the center of that was people, the people who have been impacted,” Meade said. “What we cared about was that American citizens, who have made mistakes, have an opportunity to be a part of our democracy again.”
In the deposition, Meade verbally sparred with George Meros, a lawyer representing the governor, over his group’s presentation on the Amendment 4 ballot language in a hearing before the Florida Supreme Court prior to the 2018 election.
In questioning by the justices, who ultimately approved the ballot language, Meros noted that Jon Mills, the former University of Florida law school dean who represented the Amendment 4 group, acknowledged that the amendment required the payment of fines, restitution and other costs before a felon’s voting rights could be restored.
Meade said he could not say Mills’ statement was “completely” correct.
“My answer is he could have been more definitive in his answer to specifically specify the types of fines that would be included in the completion of sentence,” Meade said.
Meros asked why the Amendment 4 supporters did not offer a clarification of those remarks after the hearing, Meade said he did not think it was necessary since there was no opposition to the ballot language in the proceeding.
“We weren’t anticipating a year later, or year and a half later, that someone is going to dissect this thing and because of the omission of one or two words, come to the conclusion that every piece of financial obligation that someone had should be hung around their necks to prevent them from voting,” Meade said. “We never anticipated that.”
Meade said his interpretation of the amendment was that it required former felons to pay fines and restitution costs that were in the “four corners” of the original sentencing document. He said it should not include court administrative costs or other charges added to the case later.
“That’s the cost of doing business. That does not attach to my wrongdoing,” Meade said. “These administrative costs and punitive costs get grouped together…. In reality, they are separate and distinct.”
The trial will continue Monday in federal court in Tallahassee. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle is presiding over the case.